Wednesday, November 30, 2011
Even if it was though, I think there is a general responsibility incumbent upon most academic work to be able to communicate the nature of that work to the public, especially if at the end of the day, they are paying for it. Thus doesn't mean dumbing it down, it means taking a little bit longer and putting a bit more effort into explaining what I do rather than using the language I would use to communicate with other scientists in similar fields. This bit, I've been confident of for some time.
The point is, that people are not dumb, the information they are getting is ... substandard at best. The NZ Herald's reading age is 9. That is, they expect a 9 year old of average intelligence to be able to read it. I'm not getting all dismissive of 9 year old's here, there are probably some quite clever ones about, but seriously, if the medium of communication between the politicians and the public operates at levels comfortable for 9 year old's, is it any wonder that there is a huge disconnect. People are also creatures of habit, if they only ever pick up the Herald, they are never going to expect anything better.
People can follow complex ideas if they are explained well. And the governing of a nation is a complex thing. Someone tells you the free market can solve it all - wrong, it's a complex economic system being shoehorned into a simplistic system. Someone tells you that tax is theft and we should just get rid of it - complex system, simple idea. Someone tells you the police are fascist thugs and if we just got rid of them then we'd all just get along - again simple idea trying to be made to fit a complex system. Yet try an explain an economic system as interactions between humans (rather than self interested rational actors) and I think people would listen.
Two things need to improve - the quality of the information being communicated to the public needs improving and the public need to get over the habitual instinct that a national newspaper can provide sufficient insight into how the modern world works. I read fairly widely, I think the information is there. it's not being provided though. The getting people to break their habits though - tricky. Short of setting up evening classes on how to find and read news with a minimum of effort every day, I'm not sure how one goes about this. Not that I'm adverse to setting up evening classes, I'm just not sure how to go about it.
If the communication is there, then public demand for better information will mean that the people who run around NZ pretending to be serious media organizations will either wither away or pick up their game. Either way, we stand a much better chance of people getting involved in the political process. Or at least I hope so.
Tuesday, November 29, 2011
So, what do we do? I would imagine that some of the non-voters just don't connect with any of the political parties. How do we get the apathetic to re-engage with the political process? And I don't just mean voting once every three years. Being involved in the political process is more than that. I'm not saying I'm perfect at this. It's only in the past few years that I've actually started writing to MP's and public servants when they piss me off. I've only been to one major protest/march (the occupy one). I've always voted though and I'd like to think I'm getting better at being involved. At the least I want to get that 31% off their behinds and voting.
I'm thinking it's time that the don't talk religion or politics rule at parties was thrown out. Politics is important. It needs to be discussed when groups get together so that there's not a permanent echo chamber - most of my friends (I think) are probably Labour or Green voters. If they only ever talk to other Labour and Green voters, nothing changes. It's not so much that they need to talk to National voters, it's that we need to be talking to the apathetic voters, pushing them to take a stand one way or t'other and being appalled at people who don't. Politics should be to the fore of interesting/important conversations. I just need to learn not to rant when doing it.
Monday, November 28, 2011
On the left, the bright spot was of course the Greens finally breaking 10% barrier. The down side for me was that Mana got Hone in but no one else. I don't have a lot of time for Hone, nor for Minto, their number 2 on the list. Annette Sykes would have been good though. And as much as Sue Bradford polarizes idiots some people, I think she did a lot of good work when she was in parliament - the repeal of section 59 for a start.
Generally disappointing though not unexpected sums it up nicely I think. It's remarkable ho little faith I have in the New Zealand electorate at the moment. It would have been none but they at least kept MMP in the referendum, proving that they're not all entirely oblivious to the true nature of politics. Just mostly oblivious.
Friday, November 25, 2011
First out of the gate is the fact that billions (not one, many) has apparently been spent on maintaining and running the railways over the years. Which is just ... flat out wrong. No idea's where he's getting those figures from (though it barely warrants the term "figure", given how loose a number that is.
And given that it can't cope with hundreds of thousands of rugby fans in the space of a few hours, is obviously reason not to invest in it so that it can handle day to day commuter traffic <facepalm>.
Then apparently public transport is bad. See what happens in London when you have public transport - the unions get a hold of it and shut it down costing the city millions. Stop. Think about that for a moment. Think some more. Anyone else see where that goes wrong? If it's possible to cost the city millions by shutting it down for a couple of day - then it obviously enables those millions on the days when it's not shut down.
The population density argument is an asinine one to make as well. If you take the total land area of Auckland and divide the size of the population into it, then yes, we're probably fairly low density. This assumes that we are evenly distributed though. Population natural accumulates around hubs, which is where public transport runs. We've got similar densities to other similar sized cities that actually have competent public transport.
Fair enough he likes his car's (apparently he's the heralds motoring journalist, feeling the need to dabble in politics) but I've never really got why the motorheads object to public transport. Surely the fact that public transport takes people off the roads would be a good thing for the people who actually like driving?
Monday, November 21, 2011
The other article was written by an American soldier currently serving in Afghanistan. It resonated more with me becuase I've been tring to figure out what the occupy movements next step is. What the soldier is asking for - a citizenry that cares, that is involved with the running of the country and takes the time to understand what is going on - is something that would fix a significant chunk of the worlds problems. Again though, it identifies what we are aiming at, not how to get there. Occupy, as best I can tell, was, in it's first phase, an effort to get the conversation started. "Hi, we're sick of this shit, how do we fix it". Which was/is necessary. I'm sure there will be later phases, but it can't be limited to just continuing to protest. if it remains as just a protest it leaves the ultimate responsibility to fix the problems with the ones who created them. And while those who created the problems might make minor course changes and spruce up the window dressing, they are not going to freely relinquish the position of power they have placed themselves in. So something more has to come of the occupy movement as time goes on. It could very well be that the people on some of the camps have come up with brilliant solutions. if they have though, they haven't been communicated to the general public.
Basically, I don't think the next thing that comes out of the occupy movement is some wonderful new political manoeuvre. Sure, there are problems with our economic and political systems, and we need to start putting suggestions forward for fixing them (Even I've got ideas for these, flawed to be sure, but ideas nonetheless). The major thing we need though is for the population to become engaged. Not just to vote, but to read, to figure out how they are governed and how to participate in that process. Of all the things that are broken in our systems, I think this is the biggest.
Thursday, November 17, 2011
If a business is using a public resource, they should be paying for it. Quite possibly some would go broke, but I'm fairly sure that's one of the tenets of free market economics - that non-viable businesses should be allowed to go under. Not that that's been allowed to happen much, look at the huge tax breaks that mediaworks got or the guarantees the government put behind the investment companies.
And it's here, for me, where the disconnect kicks in. The market is supposedly the best mechanism for making things efficient. Leaving aside the arguments that markets are not necessarily the best at making things efficient if that economics were the be all and end all of life (which they're not), then why should the principles of market economies be applied to government ministries and government owned companies, but not to actual companies, where economics are the primary motivator?
Tuesday, November 15, 2011
I don't by the way, disagree with the sentiments expressed by the additions to Nationals billboards. If it was a random member of the public, it's still probably illegal, but most people will wave it off. If you are in anyway connected with on opposition party, especially a smaller one trying to establish itself, you'd have to be a sodding idiot to be involved. When caught it potentially damages the cause they're trying to further. I hereby find Russell Normans actions acceptable.
We don't know what causes autism, or even exactly what is going wrong in the brain. Some people who are willing to discount all the evidence to the contrary claim it's vaccines, but it takes a significant amount of wilful blindness to believe that these days. This study doesn't identify a cause. It does however give us a clue as to what might be wrong. It's done on a very small sample size, which is understandable - it's looking at neuron concentrations in certain regions of the brain, which means that you have to wait until people die (making it quite a sad research project as well). Basically though, there are increased concentrations of neurons in a part of the brain that deals with language, social development and emotions. When our body develops, there's actually quite a lot of cells dying. For example, we don't grow fingers, we grow a paddle and the cells between our fingers then die off. When our brains are developing, there's something similar happening. There are a bunch of neurons that are used as a scaffold for other parts of the brain, which are then meant to die off. If these aren't dying then they could be contributing to the excessive neuron density and thus preventing the all of the neurons that would normally be there from integrating properly.
Monday, November 14, 2011
Friday, November 11, 2011
I'm not saying all modern art is pants, but I think there's a reasonable demonstration of why I'm not fond of chunks of it in the last 30 seconds. the first couple of minutes - loverly, the last 30 seconds or so, not so much. There is an element of bias in that statement though - the art that's been around longer is the usually the good stuff, the not so good having been dropped by the wayside. Which is why modern culture is quite often presented as crap by curmudgeons - they've forgotten all the crap stuff and are only remmebering the gems.
I still don't like the last 30 seconds though.
Thursday, November 10, 2011
Which brings us to the Mondragon corporation in Basque, Spain. It's a corporation owned by it's employees. Typical hippie behaviour nothing special you might say. This one corporation owns 256 companies. Each of which is owned by it's employees - 83,000 of them in total. As a whole it turns over 14 billion Euro a year. That, is not a hippie commune running a vegetable garden. I'm intrigued as to how it all works. One eminently sensible bit it has is that the wage scales are set by the employees/owners at each company. So you never get the bit were CEO's end up getting paid hundreds of times more than their lowest employees, which is one of the main problems that Occupy has with Wall St.
As for the arguments about attracting the best people to run the company? I'd say it all depends on how you define the best. If you're looking for people who will make the most money no matter what, then yeah, go find yourself a schmoozy MBA. Mondragon though, has a bunch of codes of practice which basically entail not shitting all over everyone to make money.
"Co-operation, acting as owners and protagonists; Participation, which takes shape as a commitment to management; Social Responsibility, by means of the distribution of wealth based on solidarity; and Innovation, focusing on constant renewal in all areas"I'd rather work for slightly less money for a bunch company that stood by those values (especially if I was a shareholder), than someone who uses money as the primary measure of what is worthwhile in life. Capitalism isn't inherently unworkable, we just haven't got it right yet.
Wednesday, November 9, 2011
I can't find the link, I can't even recall where I saw it, but I do recall somone making the claim a few weeks ago that evolutionary theory could be applied to everything - not just biology. It's a big call, it's plausible (I think) but it's not one I'd fully endorse until I see some substantial evidence for. Having said that, here's a commentary from George Monbiot that's not inconsistent with the idea.
It draws from the work of Daniel Kahneman (Nobel prize winner for economics in 2002) in which he showed that there's a self-attribution fallacy rife amongst our financial classes. i.e those who have succeded attribute it to skill on their part when if you look the industry over time, there stands a very good chance they would have done just as well by flipping coins. In other words, they are lucky, not special.
The other work it draws on is Psychologists Belinda Board and Katarina Fritzon, who tested senior execs in british firrms, looking for evidence of psychopathy. It's not universal but there's a fair whack of it there. These managers are very good at flattery, exploiting others at the same time as not really caring about them. Monbiot sums it up quite well
"if you have psychopathic tendencies and are born to a poor family, you're likely to go to prison. If you have psychopathic tendencies and are born to a rich family, you're likely to go to business school."
Consistent with evolutionary theory? On the surface of it, I'd say yes, it could be viewed that way. Certain traits are selected for (psychopathy), which allow some to succeed though there's a fair amount of chance involved. I'd liken it to the evolution of an (economic) parasitic organism, feeding off the general population, the 1% vs 99% so to speak. The thing with parasites though is that when they start to harm the host, the host either dies or fights back until some balance point is reached. Or lives on, crippled in misery I suppose.
Tuesday, November 8, 2011
Not so much on this blog, I often lament the lack of evidence based policy enacted by our governments. Admittedly, with economics, it's a hard thing to do given that on the country scale, economics systems exist within a large dynamic global economic system, so it's hard to isolate pieces of economic policy and determine their effect. When you're talking about broad school of though though, we can look at economies that approach either end of the spectrum and start making some general assumption. The spectrum I am talking about here, for the record is the highly regulated government controlled economy versus the completely unregulated free market approach. It's very rare that an economy actually reaches either end of the scale though the ones that are highly government controlled tend to military controlled and somewhat hopeless. Approaching the other end, the less regulation you get, the more emphasis is placed on the free market, the more inequality you get.
Presuming you're gunning for an economy that provides everyone with a baseline standard of living and that the Argentinian story over the past decade is a reasonable case study, then it would appear that what we want is not tight government control, nor overly loose control, but a moderate level of control. Their top 10% only owns 34% of the wealth rather than more than 40%. At the same time they've seen poverty rates drop form ~20% to 2.4%, which is spectacular. Salaries have grown with inflation and social spending increased.
This is not to say that everything is rosy. It's not, they've still got problems, government is always a balancing act though, like sailing a boat, you never get to take you hand off the rudder and say it'll be fine now. The idea that markets the less regulation a market has the better it will be for everyone is getting harder and harder to sell to the general population, which is as it should be, given it's failures over the past few decades. It would be nice if those trying to sell it would stop and look at countries that aren't toeing the line though. Figure out why they are working and push those policies rather than clinging to ideologies that don't work.
Monday, November 7, 2011
One of the things that I am going to be doing over the next year or so is constructing Bayesian models of gene regulatory networks. Thomas Bayes was a English chap who did everyone a favour and did some very serious thinking about probabilities back in the 1700's. Everyone is, I presume familiar with the idea that if you roll a dice there's a 1 in 6 chance that you'll get a six. If you roll two (non loaded die) then there's a 1 in 36 chance you'll get 2 sixes. You can just multiply the probabilities of the two events together because they're independent. What happens if your two events are conditional though? That is to say, the outcome of the second event is affected by the outcome of the first event? This is what Bayes worked out, how to compute the probability of an event given the probability of second event.
Friday, November 4, 2011
Sciblogs.co.nz has two stories at the moment which fit together quite nicely. One that came through this morning was on coffee and cancer. There was an article in the Christchurch press touting coffee as a beneficial in preventing skin cancer. Which is all well and good, but coffee also contains known carcinogens. So which is it, good or bad? The answer is a common one - it depends. There's a variety of factors that are in play such as the levels of good stuff/bad stuff, and the fact that cancer is a single disease (something that needs to be stressed more often), it's an umbrella term for a diverse bunch of disorders that create similar effects (death) via a variety of mechanisims.
The point being, that when an article comes along that says "Yay! this thing stops cancer", it pays to remember that it's never quite that simple. Which is a point made in this post. Basically, you should trust the science rather than the scientist. Take coffee for example, one study comes out and says it's good, another says it's bad. it's not a good idea to rely on the latest study, different scientists are looking at similar things for different reasons. Before you run out and start overdosing on coffee though, you need to look at the science. Look at as many studies as you can find - how many are bad? how bad is it under what circumstances. What benefits does it give you? then you get to make a judgement call (which of course benefits+taste >> drawbacks)
Most of this is missed when the latest next best thing gets reported. Which is bad becuase if you only pay attention to the latest publicized result, it can lead to people actually thinking scientists are debating whether global warming exists. the odd scientist is claiming that it doesn't, but the science as a whole amkes it painfully clear that it is happening and we've probably underestimated it so far. Or that there is a cure for cancer just around the corner - there isn't, we've got promising treatments for some cancers and have identified numerous risk factors but we're a long way from figuring all out how to solve all cancers. These things become evident when the science is considered but can easily become hidden or confused when individual reports are relied upon.
Wednesday, November 2, 2011
Apparently, ditching the old and creating the new benefits will save 1 billion over 4 years. I'm presuming that that means 250 million a year on average rather than 1 billion a year. 250 million a year, out of a spend of 5 billion dollars gives us roughly, a 4% savings. The full benefit is currently about $230 a week. 4% of that being, 9 dollars. That, to a beneficiary, will make a lot more difference than you think, 2-3 meals a week. More problematic I think, is the putting everyone on the sickness benefit into the job seeker benefit. There's plenty of jobs about if you're a java programmer with 6 years experience. Most people aren't though. And there's not enough jobs there for the unemployed, let alone jobs that will be able to cater to the needs of those currently unsuited to full time labour.
In short, as best I can tell, it's a rearranging the deck chairs, the primary purpose being to use the unemployed as a boogie man to wave in front of the voters to distract them from the fact that jobs are not plentiful.
Tuesday, November 1, 2011
Okay, technically I'm probably calling this one as a win to early - it hasn't been tested on human's yet. In Nature, we have an article on a group from China that have made transgenic rice that produces human serum albumin, a protein out of out blood. At the moment it's mostly taken from blood donations. So having a supply that we can literally grow is going to break open a supply bottle neck. It has a variety of uses and one of it's big plusses will be infection free. It's only been tested on mice so far, but it appears to be chemically identical to naturally derived human serum albumin so far. Fingers crossed.
Even if it doesn't work, it's still a win though. Just the fact that we are thinking about doing stuff like this is incredibly cool. And there's cooler stuff yet to come.